Fort Ostenburg: The most powerfully gunned bastion in Ceylon | Sunday Observer

Fort Ostenburg: The most powerfully gunned bastion in Ceylon

21 October, 2018
The 12 ton gun
The 12 ton gun

Ancient Ceylon had many fortified bastions along her coastal borders. The most talked about Dutch Forts are the ones located in Galle, Matara and Jaffna. However, many Sri Lankans are familiar with Fort Fredrick in Trincomalee.

But, unknown to many is the small fort built within the confines of the Eastern Naval Command that guarded the approach way to the resplendent Trincomalee harbour and the area of Koddiyar Bay. This Fort and the Hoods Tower area are an immense treasure to maritime historians. The massive cannons placed along Ostenburg Ridge are a few of the last big British naval guns in existence around the world. It is no wonder, British Prime Minister Winston Pitt (1766-1768) once commented about the strategic Trincomalee harbour saying: “The finest and most advantageous Bay in the whole of India. The equal of which is hardly known, in which a whole fleet may safely ride, and remain in tranquillity”.

Battle for supremacy

The value of this harbour was realized by King Parakramabahu 1, during the 12th Century. The monarch had established a military presence at Trincomalee from Polonnaruwa. Subsequently, in 1639 this area was captured by Dutch Admiral Westerwold. In 1716, the Dutch Governor Hendrick Becker had decided to build a fort here to enhance coastal defences (Fort Fredrick was already built by the Dutch in 1665, from the remains of a smaller Portuguese fort built on the same location in 1624).

Thus, the Bay of Trincomalee could now be defended by the new Fort named Ostenburg (meaning eastern hill) with 32 pieces of artillery and a crew of 30 soldiers. As our maritime history records in 1782, British Admiral Sir Edward Hughes sailed with his fleet and made a surprise attack on the Dutch garrison at Fort Fredrick, rendering it helpless. Six days later, Admiral Hughes stormed Ostenburg Fort and captured the location.

This victory was short lived for the British as French Admiral Baillie de Suffren attacked Fort Ostenburg moving in by sea, with some troops marching to Trincomalee via Jaffna. However, there was a peace treaty negotiated in Paris in 1783, between the French and the British, and the two Forts were returned to British Admiralty. These gun battles show us how vital Fort Ostenburg was in that era.

Consolidating coastal defences

On reaching Trincomalee I met with Lieutenant Weerasekera, curator of the Hoods Tower Naval Museum and Lieutenant Yapa. We drove along the winding road, passing dense foliage to reach this vantage point where the old ramparts of Fort Ostenburg stand. The roof of the Fort is no more and a few walls and steps remain. This hill has been maintained by the Navy for decades. Lieutenant Yapa explained, “Since the 1920s the Royal Navy set about enhancing the firepower of this vital hill. We believe, Ostenburg Ridge was fitted with almost 50 cannons making this the most powerfully gunned Fort in Ceylon”.

We began climbing the famous Hoods Tower, which has a commanding 360 degree view of the entire harbour at a height of 32 feet. This observation and fire control tower was set up by Admiral Samuel Hood. The first floor has a room with old maps and signal lanterns. The second floor houses the wireless sets. The topmost floor has a massive search light, installed by Metropolitan Vickers Ltd, from Sheffield, England.

The view from here is amazing as the forest gives way to hills and the ocean. Lieutenant Weerasekera explains, ‘This search light was manned at night and its powerful beams can reach two nautical miles. Once the operator spots an enemy ship the signal man would be alerted, who in turn would alert the gun crew’. We could see Sober Island, Foul Point and the border of Sampur from this tower.

We walked down the steps towards the massive cannons. Each of these guns weigh 12 tons, and elephants had been used to haul them up this unforgiving hill. The guns reminded me of the World War 2 movie, ‘The Guns of Navarone’.

On Ostenburg Ridge there are three such guns. Lieutenant Yapa directed us down a flight of steps into the belly of the concrete bunker that once held the ammunition for the BL6 inch naval gun. The gun was fed with high explosive shells that weighed 45 Kg each. A sailor showed me the loading bay where the British crew would carry and place each dangerous shell. A belt system fed the shell into the gun. When fired, the projectile flew with such velocity that the hills thundered. The gun has a range of 13,400 metres.

In addition, the bunker displays the old rifles from that era. The gun crew could live here for days on their rations. On our way up the steps I noticed pieces of glistening silica embedded in the floor- an innovative Royal Navy idea that lightens the steps at night (absorbing the moonlight) giving sufficient light to the crew, but still concealing the aerial view of the fortification. In addition to the three massive guns, Fort Ostenburg had many other armaments.

Another powerful weapon was the Rodman Gun made by the British in 1863 which has a range of 1,700 metres. The large black outer casing of this weapon gives it a terrifying look. The hill also has ‘18-pounder’ cannons positioned in pairs. With such a vantage point this was a formidable Fort.

As we walked toward the rear of the gun turrets there are four old rooms, painted cream. The black windows made with cast iron from over 150 years have amazingly withstood corrosion. One room has the uniforms and mess tins of the Royal Navy. Another room displays medical equipment including an X-Ray machine. This room was vital in saving the injured sailors.

During the Japanese air raid on April 9, 1942 this hill was targeted along with the harbour. The ship HMS Hermes was bombed and sunk. This aerial assault left 700 people dead in Trincomalee. An eye witness Michael Tomlinson, retired RAF officer recalls the event in his book noting how a Japanese kamikaze pilot crashed his plane into an oil storage tank North of China Bay causing a massive inferno. Later, Sir Winston Churchill had said of this air raid: “The most dangerous moment of the war was when the Japanese fleet was heading for Ceylon”.

It was interesting to see an old fire engine parked outside, its wheels still intact. The British had an area within this base known as Dead Man’s Cove where sailors who died of infectious disease such as, malaria were buried. After reigning supreme in the Eastern coast the Royal Navy left Ceylon in 1956. Their guns were handed over to the Coastal Artillery Regiment. The work and dedication of these ancient sailors remain in Trincomalee.

The public can visit Fort Ostenburg and Hoods Tower. This splendid area of maritime history, full of sacrifice is best captured in the words of Admiral Chester Nimitz: ‘They fought together as brothers in arms. They died together and now sleep side by side. To them we have a solemn obligation’.